By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
MAKING NECESSARY ADJUSTMENTS
One of the fascinations of baseball is watching teams adjust to one another. What might
once been a useful tactic may no longer work because the opponents have figured out
how to defend against it.
Until recently, for example, it was considered smart to run up the count on starting
pitchers, to get their pitch counts up to a hundred or more by the fifth or sixth inning. In
other words, to get them out of the game as early as possible. The theory was that the
middle relief corps was the Achilles heel of most pitching staffs, being made up of guys
neither good enough to make the starting rotation nor steady enough to be trusted in late
inning situations. The Red Sox were at the forefront of that run-up- the-count theory.
But things change.
The new strategy emanating from Fort Myers this spring is to be aggressive at the plate.
The gospel now being preached is if the first pitch in the count looks like a good one to
hit, hit it. Don’t automatically take the first pitch, the other guys are on to that; if they
know you’re not going to swing at it they’ll throw it right down the middle and you’ll be
behind on the count. Let the pitch counts take care of themselves. One reason for the
change in philosophy, as least according to this seasoned observer (I am an observer -
although an extremely myopic one) is that middle relievers have changed. The top tier
teams have guys coming into the middle of games who throw 95 m.p.h. or higher, hardly
pushovers. There is also the undeniable fact that the Red Sox had a lousy year offensively
last year. They were last in the league in home runs and Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts,
Jackie Bradley, and Hanley Ramirez all had off years. Had the team become too passive
at the plate? Maybe. Will the new, aggressive approach spark an impovement?
Hopefully. One thing for sure, they need an upgrade.
Teams constantly adjust to one another. The infield shifts, first introduced by Joe
Madden, then manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, have in the last several years, become
commonplace. Will someone come up with a way to negate their effectiveness that also
fits in with modern day metrics? Who knows?
The shifts that are so prevalent today are often compared to the “Williams shift” that
Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau used against Ted Williams seven decades ago.
There is no comparison, take it from one who remembers. First of all, today’s shifts only
cover the infield; outfielders remain in their traditional positions. Secondly, today’s shifts
still leave one infielder on the left side of the diamond against a left-handed hitter. In the
Wlliams shift every infielder played to the right of second base. The third baseman was
slightly to the right of second, the shortstop in the normal second baseman’s spot, the
second baseeman in short rightfield and the first baseman next to the foul line almost
directly behind first. The rightfielder played deep and over toward the foul line. The
centerfielder was way over in right center, and – strangest of all – the leftfielder, the only
man on the left side of the field, was stationed in no-man’s land, about thirty feet behind
the normal shortstop position. He was too deep to convert a groundball into an out and
too shallow to catch a flyball. Go figure.
On September 13, 1946 in Cleveland Municipal Stadium Ted came to bat in the bottom
of the first with two out and no one on. Pat Seerey, the Indians leftfielder, dutifully took
his position in no-man’s land. Ted surprised everyone by stepping forward in the batter’s
box and deliberately hitting a flyball to left. It was fairly well hit but would have been a
routine out had there been anyone there to catch it. Seerey, not exactly a gazelle, went
lumbering after it. Ted, no jackrabbit himself, took off around the bases as the ball rolled
all the way to the wall some four hundred feet away. By the time he got to second Seerey
was still chasing down the ball. As Ted chugged into third the coach was frantically
waving him around; he slid into home plate under the relay throw for the only inside-the-
park home run of his career. The score held up as the Red Sox won, 1-0, clinching the
only pennant in Williams’ long career.
The hit did little to encourage Williams to stop pulling the ball, and it did not cure
Boudreau from using “The Shift” whenever Ted came up to hit. Neither side was willing
Most teams, though, constantly make adjustments to each other. Last year’s phenom
might be this year’s bust. First, teams find out what a player can do and then they find out
what he can’t do. Whatever it is that he can’t do is the diet he’ll be fed and it’s up to him
to make the adjustment. Some can do it and some can’t. Will Aaron Judge of the Yankees
turn out to be the next great slugger, or will he be the next Willy Mo Pena? He showed
signs of being both last year.
What adjustments will be made? Will they work? In less than three weeks we’ll start to
get some answers. I can’t wait.